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How “serious” should wine be? Perhaps not serious at all: it’s a heart-gladdening beverage. Wine enthusiasts, though, often want to distinguish the satisfaction brought by nuance and complexity from trivial, unsatisfying alternatives. In that sense “seriousness” does have its place. There’s no neat line, though, between dignity and levity in wine. Prosecco makes the point.
Venice’s foamy-fresh, stress-dissolving sparkler has been (along with rosé) one of wine’s recent success stories. Colossally so: there has been a tenfold expansion in sales over the past decade. The 486 million bottles produced in 2019 comfortably exceeded champagne shipments (297.6 million bottles) in that merry pre-pandemic year. In the UK, its strongest export market, prosecco outsold champagne more than fourfold in 2019. It lends itself to cocktail use (notably for the Bellini and Aperol Spritz), it mostly tastes off-dry, and it’s not usually made by the traditional bottle-fermentation method used for both champagne and cava but rather tank-fermented. These things seem to dance it away from seriousness.
Wine can, of course, be honourably blithe, and prosecco is certainly that. Inquire further, though, and you’ll discover that this wine has a long history, can be fiercely challenging to grow and tastes delicate and nuanced too.
Its origins lie north of Trieste. Perhaps it was the longevity-bringing wine that Pliny the Elder called Pucino in his Natural History, “grown on a bay of the Adriatic not far from the source of the Timavus”; there is a village called Prosecco in the vicinity today, and the 16th-century traveller Fynes Moryson enjoyed drinking “Prosecho” when travelling in “Histria”. Since then, it has moved steadily west, and its heartland now rests in the province of Treviso, north of Venice.
Which brings us to the first level of complexity: prosecco exists as both a DOC (denominazione di origine controllata) and in more stringently circumscribed DOCG (denominazione di origine controllata e garantita) versions. The former is a generally easy-going wine of the plains, made from 25,700ha of vineyards in no fewer than nine north-east Italian provinces: blithe as you like. The latter, from just 7,971ha of vineyards, is a wine of the astonishingly steep Trevisano hills requiring viticultural struggle as heart-pounding as that of the Douro, of Côte Rôtie or of the Mosel. Prosecco is an eminently pronounceable name, but the main DOCG version — Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene Superiore — is a 19-syllable tongue-twister.
And there are more complexities. This zone in turn has two higher-quality enclaves: Rive (for the finest 43 named villages: 352ha) and the single-zone Cartizze (108ha). There is also a second DOCG version produced a little to the south-west of Conegliano-Valdobbiadene called Asolo Prosecco Superiore. Wines from these DOCG zones have a mountain purity that the plains find hard to duplicate.
Until 2009, the principal grape variety for prosecco was known as . . . Prosecco. Its growing success, though, meant that this variety was being planted around the world and the resulting wine was, logically yet confusingly, called “prosecco”. In order to protect the wine’s Adriatic Italian origins, the grape was renamed Glera, saving the name prosecco for Italy’s DOC and DOCG versions. The flavours of prosecco are changing too, especially in the DOCG. The terms “dry” and “extra dry” on prosecco labels have always been hazardous, since the wines are neither: extra dry can mean up to 17g/l of sugar, and dry up to 32g/l. Many argue that this wine exerts maximum enchantment via these sweet frills and ringlets.
“Brut”, by contrast, does mean dry — less than 12g/l — and there are more and more DOCG incarnations sold as “extra brut” (less than 6g/l) or in totally dry “brut nature” style. These wines are usually aged for much longer than the DOCG minimum of around six months. If you want to see what prosecco tastes like made by the bottle-fermentation method, look for the words Metodo Classico. And if you like a cloudy, artisanal style, then Col Fondo or Sui Lieviti indicate that the wine has finished its sparkle-inducing fermentation in the bottle you hold in your hand, hence its yeasty deposit.
Still more recent is the arrival of pink prosecco — and if your prosecco is pink, then that means it is DOC rather than DOCG. The rules allowing this were changed only in 2020, and the first examples arrived in the UK just before Christmas; the summer of 2021 is prosecco rosé’s first big test. It’s a blend of Glera with up to 15 per cent Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir), though small amounts of other white varieties are also permitted as allowed by the Prosecco DOC rules in general.
As with still rosé, colour is half the charm — and prosecco’s relatively swift and simple production methods make that elusive petal-pink hue eminently obtainable. It’s much harder, for example, in champagne whose elaborate production methods impose a longer, multi-stage process. Pink prosecco has already proved so successful that a lack of Pinot Noir in the production zone is limiting supply.
I tasted 51 of the most widely available pink prosecco wines in the UK and US markets for this article, as well as 27 white DOCG wines: I list the best 10 of each category below. There’s no doubt that it is worth paying more for the often beautifully bottled DOCG versions: they have a fine-grained finesse that eludes the friendlier but less artful DOC wines. The struggle on the steep hillsides is not in vain. I also had the chance to try both sets of wines out on a wide range of friends and acquaintances. No one dislikes them, even if wine geeks turn uneasy when they sit down to write tasting notes and find that there isn’t, after all, a huge amount to say. Prosecco flirts with seriousness, but always ends in levity. They are pretty; they are delicious; they seem to make happy moments happier. Isn’t that enough?
Pink prosecco DOC wines
Albino Armani 1607 2020 Extra Dry
Astoria Vini 2020 Extra Dry
Bisol 1542 Jeio 2020 Brut
Bosco del Merlo 2020 Brut
Antonio Faccin 2019 Brut
Masottina Collezione 96 Brut 2020
Pitars Colors Limited Edition 2020 Brut
Pizzolato Organic 2020 Brut
La Tordera Tor Sè 2020 Brut
Villa Sandi 2020 Brut
White prosecco DOCG wines
Bortolomiol Grande Cuvée del Fondatore, Motus Vitae 2018 Brut Nature
Col Sandago Nature Extra 2019 Brut, Rive di Susegana
Graziano Merotto Cuvée del Fondatore 2019 Brut, Rive di Col San Martino
Mani Sagge Audace 2019, Extra Brut
La Farra 2020 Extra Dry, Rive di Farra di Soligo
Santa Margherita 2020 Extra Brut, Rive di Refrontolo
Sommariva 2019 Extra Dry, Rive di San Michele
Spagnol Fondo 2019 Brut Nature Sui Lieviti
Tenuta degli Ultimi Biancariva 2016, Rive di Collalto
Villa Sandi, La Rivetta, Cartizze 2020, Brut
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